The NBA Playoffs have already seen numerous accounts of the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. The method has commonly been used against the Golden State Warriors’ center Andrew Bogut, Los Angeles Clippers’ center DeAndre Jordan, and a pair of Houston Rockets players Josh Smith and Dwight Howard.
Hack-a-Shaq is the name commonly ascribed to a basketball defensive strategy initially instituted in the NBA to hinder the scoring ability of the opposing team by continuously committing professional fouls against one of its opposing players, which is the player chosen being the one with the weakest free throw percentage among players on the court. The strategy originated in the late 1990s by Dallas Mavericks head coach Don Nelson. Nelson theorized that if an especially bad free throw shooter were targeted every time, then intentionally fouling him repeatedly might actually yield fewer points per possession for his team than would playing a typical defense against them. Nelson first employed this tactic against Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls in 1997. Entering the game, Rodman had been making 38% of his free throws over the course of the season. Nelson felt he could still use the strategy at selective times by assigning a player that was not commonly played in the lineup to commit the fouls this way the team would not particularly miss upon his fouling out.
Although Nelson was the man to originate the strategy, a similar strategy had been used against NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain decades earlier. Nelson revisited the strategy in 1999, this time against Shaquille O’Neal who shot 52% from the free throw line over his career. This time, some other NBA coaches chose to follow Nelson’s lead and also employ the strategy against O’Neal.
Let’s take a look at some playoff series this strategy will often be used in:
Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks
This year’s Mavericks team resembles the 2011 Dallas Mavericks who went on to win the championship. Bringing back key pieces from that championship winning team such as Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea while also adding former All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo and a young wing player in Chandler Parsons makes the Mavericks one of the best seven-seeded teams in NBA history. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is widely considered as a top experienced NBA coach who tends to prefer to play half court offense falls in direct contrast to that of Kevin McHale whose Rockets enter as the Western Conference’s no. 2 seeded team through their up tempo run and gun type of offense. One Maverick player to keep an eye on is former All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Two Houston player to keep an eye on this series would be center Dwight Howard and forward Josh Smith. Why should we keep an eye on these three players? The reason for this is because Howard shot 52% from the free throw line this season, while Smith shot 49% and Rondo shot 39%, very uncharacteristic for a guard.
In Game 2 of the series, the Mavericks visited the Hack-a-Howard strategy. Howard solved the only way to fix the hacking problem is by making eight, straight free throws and finishing the game 8-11 from the line while Smith shot 0-1 from the cherry stripe. With more coaches turning to the strategy and more games being bogged down by poor shooters making repeated trips to the free throw line, league officials and experts surrounding the NBA have tried to figure out a solution to this epidemic. Some people feel the league should do nothing, while other such as Sports Illustrated’s Matt Dollinger feel the player that is fouled should be awarded three free throws instead of two. A consensus opinion regarding the issue is the strategy might be painful to watch, yet it is still not proven to work every time.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs
In this series, the Hack-a-Shaq or Hack-a-Jordan strategy might have a large impact between the Clippers and Spurs. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Clippers coach Doc Rivers both are championship winning head coaches and Chicago natives, but each are composed of unique and different pedigree. Coach Popovich, commonly referred to as “Pop”, served active duty in the United States Air Force for five years before becoming a coach, while Rivers played in the NBA for 13 season ironically playing for both the Clippers and Spurs. Popovich plays a very active style of offense where passing and off-ball movement is vital, whereas Rivers has adapted over the years and finds himself playing an uptempo high-flying offense surrounded by his All-Star power forward Blake Griffin, All-Star point guard Chris Paul, and an athletic defensive anchor in DeAndre Jordan. For the purpose of this series and the Hack-a-Shaq strategy we must focus on Clippers’ center DeAndre Jordan.
This past season, Jordan converted only 187 free throws out of 471 coming to an average free throw shooting percentage of about 39%. Popovich is a mastermind when it comes to analytical data which can only mean one thing, Jordan better get ready to seeing the basket from 15 feet away and standing on a line two inches wide. When Jordan and the Clippers played the Spurs earlier this season on February 19, Jordan was sent to the line 28 times and made 10 free throws; the Spurs shot 23 free throws. Popovich will constantly refer to this strategy throughout the series which should only put more pressure on Jordan to live up to his potential max contract this offseason by converting from the line throughout the duration of this series.
Ironically, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey believes that the rule is likely to change this offseason.
“I think that rule will be changed,” Morey told a local radio station in Houston.
Many people around the league dislike the strategy because it “slows down the game” and it makes the game “ugly.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver on the issue, “It’s something that I’m on the fence about. My thought used to be that we should definitely change the rule, and then having sat through several general managers meetings, competition meetings and having heard from some of the game’s very best, the view is the players should hit their free throws. That’s changed my view a little bit. Having said that, when I watch some of these games on television, frankly, it’s not great entertainment for our fans, and that’s important as well. What I’ve said is we have another general managers meeting coming up in May, we have a competition committee meeting in June, and I’m sure it’s going to be a hot topic of discussion. Then, we have an owners meeting in July, so I think at all three of those meetings we’re going to be having full-throated conversations about what the right rules should be going forward.”
As long as Hack-a-Shaq is part of the rules, strategists such as Carlisle and Popovich will look to take full advantage and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents’ poor free throw shooters such as Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan.